Over the past week, I’ve started working on new Lawrence Arms songs. It’s a funny process, getting into this kind of thing, especially after so long but essentially it’s the same as it ever was (although now I have to get bananas and turn on Zooboomafoo and shit at any given moment and my concentration goes completely out the fucking window). Essentially, with a few weird exceptions, I always start off writing lyrics first, and I sit down and just kind of go for it. Right now, I have about three different times in the day when I sit down and crank out at least a page: in the morning, and then again twice during my kids’ naps. Sometimes I’ll do another page at night, but it really depends. At any given point when I get a free second, I’ll just pick up a guitar and see if any of these various pages of words inspire any rhythms or melodies and I’ll try to crank out at least a verse, a bridge or a chorus, though usually when something really works, the whole thing pops out almost fully formed.
At first (and this is the stage I’m in now), the lyrics are really bad. They’re overwrought and too sincere and generally crappy (I’ve said this before in this space and I can’t overstate it: anyone who wants to be a creative writer of any kind, lyrics, poetry, prose, should read Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice for a spectacular treatise on how sincerity and sentimentality are poison to compelling work).
It’s a lot like skateboarding for the first time after a long winter or getting back out in the dating scene after a big relationship. At first, you overthink everything. You’re out of practice and that only serves to highlight the perceived gap in how good you USED to be at this compared to how good you currently are. This saps your confidence, which is the one thing you absolutely need in order to push through your rustiness and into any place that could be considered new and exciting. The only way around this is to be compulsive (or really disciplined) and just go for it constantly. Eventually, the routine of writing 3 times a day or more will overwhelm the lack of self confidence and the rustiness.
Once all the overwrought sentimental shit that’s clogging the line works its way out of me (you, whoever), I find that in my boredom with the exercise of compulsively writing, I start to fuck around a little bit. Once humor enters into the equation (naturally…you can’t force humor any more than you can force a baby or a dog to eat) shit starts to get interesting. Humor is the key and is, along with confidence, the most crucial ingredient to good writing, especially in lyrical form.
Now, I’m not suggesting that things need to be funny to be good. That’s crazy. Obviously there are billions of great songs that aren’t funny. BUT humor and being funny aren’t the same thing. It’s the confident sense of humor that doles out whatever the sentiment is that separates the good songs from the bad. There are so many examples of this, I don’t even know where to begin. Propagandhi is a band that deals with heavy themes but always keeps a sense of humor, even in the most dire of situations. They’re an extreme example, as they’re often laugh-out-loud funny and tear inducingly scary/sad in the same song, but they’re also my favorite band, so that’s where I’m starting.
Way on the other side of the spectrum, a song like Yellow by Coldplay, which is not in any way funny, has a playful sense of humor about it (I mean, the chorus is “and it was all yellow” which is, out of context [and, many would argue, IN context] a stupid and grammatically questionable line, but it’s that humanness that draws people in). The willingness to play with and break form and defy expectations is the single most important technique that a lyricist has at his/her disposal. Examples of this are absolutely everywhere.
The Beatles are constantly playful and humorous. So is Megadeth, so is Fallout Boy and Bring Me the Horizon and Dillinger Four and At The Drive In and Lady Gaga and Madonna and The Menzingers and NOFX and Bad Religion (if you doubt me, listen to some of the cheeky dismissive lines portending doom on Suffer, No Control or Against the Grain). Tragedy employs humor just as Against Me!, NWA and the original Guns n Roses do (there’s not a more misinterpreted, intentionally funny album out there than Appetite for Destruction). The Cars and the Stones and Paul Simon…fuck. This list literally contains anyone who’s ever written a good song.
The element of humor (which is different than comedy, just to reiterate) when mixed with confidence, is what makes art pop. The only way to reach this apex (for me at least) is to just write and write and write and write and write and write and patiently wait for the day it all stops sucking. Right now I think I have about 75% of one song and 4 lines of another that I don’t think totally suck. Eventually, they’ll probably both get discarded as better shit comes along, but for now, they’ll do. I’ve probably written over twenty pages in the last week to get this far.
In summation, get stoked and send me links to interesting things. I’m feeding my brain again (and boobs. We’ll always accept boobs).